Elizabeth Rimmer
Elizabeth Rimmer

We often hear the phrase ‘think like a lawyer’ but what does it really mean? Most would say it means paying attention to detail, skill at making an argument, a drive for perfection, an obsession for detail, analysing risk and all possible outcomes, preparing for the worst. All these skills make an excellent lawyer but can be damaging to your mental health.

Certain personality types thrive in a legal role, in particular insecure overachievers. Those who are competitive, perfectionist and have a drive to prove themselves and be the best in order to feel worthy and valued. They may feel a constant sense of impatience and urgency, and despite all their achievements are critical of themselves. If things go wrong in either their personal or professional lives they find it very difficult to navigate.

In addition, the regulatory environment in which lawyers operate is also extremely tough – there is no room for any mistakes and a fear and blame culture has been normalised. This can lead to a sense of psychological unsafety and imposter syndrome, a feeling that you are just waiting to be caught out or for things to go wrong. The human brain is also prone to negativity bias, giving a greater importance to things that have gone wrong rather than what has gone right. We have a tendency to ruminate and dwell on the negative. Lawyers can also be natural overthinkers and find it difficult to let go of certain thoughts. When you combine all this with a legal professional’s typical heavy workload, long hours and little time for rest from work and there is a perfect storm for stress, anxiety and burnout to develop.

Lawyers tend to live in their own brain, and humans tend to spend their time thinking rather than just being. Sometimes understanding how your brain works and identifying some unhealthy thinking styles can help you get some distance from some of your thoughts and see that your thoughts are not always a good representation of what’s actually happening in that moment. Our feelings, emotions and behaviours are usually a direct reaction to our thoughts and so if your thoughts have gone down a particular rabbit hole, your reactions are likely to be disproportionate.

Here are some common unhealthy thinking patterns we regularly hear about at LawCare.

Catastrophising/minimisation – blowing things out of proportion and believing the worst possible thing will happen for example ‘I’ll be sacked for this”. The other side of the coin is minimising something to make it seem less important and easier to deal with. This can also be known as sticking your hand in the sand rather than dealing with something head on.

Emotional reasoning – assuming because you feel a certain way it must be true, for example just because you think ‘I’m terrible at my job’ doesn’t mean you are. This can also lead you you to jump to conclusions and assume you know what the outcome of a situation will be, or what someone is thinking.

All or nothing/black and white thinking – believing that something or someone can only be good or bad, or everything has to be perfect and if it isn’t you’ve failed. So for example a small error you have made, or a negative interaction with someone ruins an entire relationship or situation.

Mental filter – Common in All or nothing thinkers you only pay attention to certain things, for example filtering out all the times you have been praised in favour of times you’ve been criticised.

Shoulds and musts  – thinking or saying  ‘I should’ and  ‘I must’  – this just adds more pressure and often goes hand in hand with Personalisation, taking responsibility or taking the blame for an outcome that wasn’t your fault. We hear this a lot with lawyers who believe they should have won a particular case and spend months or even years still thinking about what they could have done differently.

Labelling – giving unhelpful labels to yourself or others such as ‘over emotional’ or ‘not good with people’ which can set you up for failure. This is common in junior lawyers who may have been given negative feedback before and have found it difficult to let go of this.

Tips for dealing with unhelpful thinking styles

  • Focus on the here and now – what is actually happening in this present moment.
  • Talk to people about how you are feeling and ask colleagues/friends for reassurance and their perspective
  • Keep a list or folder of your achievements and look at it when you need to.
  • If you notice your inner voice is overly negative and self-critical ask yourself would you talk to a friend this way?
  • Distract yourself from your thoughts – read a book, take some exercise, see a friend, go outside, do something you enjoy.
  • Take some annual leave from work and use it as an opportunity to reset.
  • Evaluate your working environment – if you are working somewhere that you feel contributes negatively to your wellbeing you might want to look at some other options.

You can contact LawCare for support on 0800 279 6888, email support@lawcare.org.uk or access online live chat and other resources at www.lawcare.org.uk

Join our Tell Ten campaign for World Mental Health Day and tag 10 colleagues or friends on social or send an email or text & let them know about the free, confidential service LawCare offers everyone working in the law. You never know when someone might need us.